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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament

Revelation 20

The Reign of the Thousand Years.

We have now examined the various topics mentioned in the separate clauses of chap. 20 with the exception of ‘the thousand years.’ It is impossible, however, to pass from the chapter without devoting some attention to this point. No subject referred to in the New Testament has more agitated the Church throughout all her history. Upon none has greater diversity of opinion or greater keenness of feeling been displayed; and there is none on which, alike for our individual comfort and for the sake of our general estimate of Scripture, it is more desirable to gain, if possible, a clear and definite conception. The writer of this Commentary is more particularly desirous to offer a few considerations upon the point because, so long ago as August 1871, he was led to take a view of the thousand years which, as far as known to him, had not been previously suggested, and which seemed to remove in a manner consistent with fair interpretation the chief difficulties of the subject. Since that time the most important conclusion then arrived at has been brought forward, though apparently as the result of his own independent investigations, by Kliefoth, in the second part of his Commentary on the Apocalypse, A.D. 1874. Kliefoth’s interpretation of the passage as a whole is indeed entirely different from that adopted here, but upon the particular point of the thousand years he and the present writer are at one. Such a fact may help to propitiate the reader in favour of what has now to be said.

Before again suggesting the solution referred to, it will be well to devote a few sentences to two views, one or other of which is generally accepted as upon the whole the best explanation of the apostle’s meaning. The first of these is that a lengthened period of prosperity and happiness for the Church of Christ on earth is to intervene between the close of the present Dispensation and the general Judgment. Almost everything indeed connected with this period is matter of dispute among those who accept the main idea, its length, the proportion of believers who shall be partakers of its glory, the condition in which they are to live, the work in which they are to be engaged, the relation in which the exalted Redeemer is to stand to them. These differences of detail it is impossible to discuss as if they were so many separate theories, but the more important will be noticed as we proceed. The second explanation demanding notice is that which supposes the thousand years to be a figure for the whole Christian age from the First to the Second Coming of the Lord. Turning to the first of these explanations, it would seem as if the difficulties surrounding it were nearly, if not wholly, insurmountable.

If we interpret the thousand years literally, it will be a solitary example of a literal use of numbers in the Apocalypse, and this objection alone is fatal. If, on the other hand, we regard the thousand years as denoting an indefinite period, the difficulties of doing so are hardly less formidable. The numbers of the Apocalypse may be symbolical, but they are always definite in meaning. They express ideas it is true, but the ideas are distinct. They may belong to a region of thought different from that with which arithmetical numbers are concerned, but within that region we cannot change the numerical value of the numbers used without at the same time changing the thought. Thus the thousand years cannot mean two thousand or ten thousand or twenty thousand years, as the necessities of the case may demand. If they are a measure of time, the measure must be fixed, and we ought to be able to explain the principles leading us to attach to it a value different from that which it naturally possesses.

It is impossible to form any reasonable conception of the condition of the saints during the thousand years. Multitudes of them must have risen from their graves through Him who is ‘the first-fruits of them that sleep;’ those who were alive at the beginning of the thousand years must have been ‘changed.’ This is admitted by such as hold the theory: Believers raised, however, are raised ‘in glory,’ and we have the absolutely inconceivable spectacle presented to us of glorified saints living in a world which has not yet received its own glorification, and is thus completely unfitted for their residence. Nor is the difficulty lessened by adopting the supposition that only the Holy Land and Jerusalem shall be transfigured, for we cannot imagine one part of the earth transfigured without the rest, and the part chosen for this purpose is far too small to accommodate those who are supposed to occupy it. Still greater difficulties meet us when we think of the relations existing between the saints thus glorified and ‘the nations.’ It is not easy to gather together in a single sentence the various ideas upon this point of those who hold the view of which we speak; and it may be enough to say that ‘the nations’ are generally regarded as either subject to the saints, and ruled by them in peace, or as the objects of their missionary enterprise. They are thus either harmless innocents, the absence of Satan preventing all combination and organized manifestation of evil, or they are peculiarly accessible to the grandeur of the spectacle which they behold in the glorified Saviour and His people. It is needless to say that for all this, and much more of a similar kind, there is absolutely not the slightest foundation in the apostle’s words. Indeed the total absence of any mention of relations between the saints and ‘the nations’ until we come to Revelation 20:7 is one of the most remarkable characteristics of the vision. Evidently the Seer has no thought of any complex state of matters such as would spring out of the long dwelling together of these different classes. Or, if there is to be a fresh duration of existence, is there also to be another probation for ‘the nations,’ a Gospel preached under circumstances very different from what we have known, and constituting a new Dispensation, while yet there is the same judgment at the end, and the conditions for entrance into happiness or woe continue as before?

(3) The great difficulty, however, presented by this view of the millennium arises from the teaching of Scripture elsewhere upon the points involved in it. If we suppose that the saints who are made partakers of millennial glory are a selected company, we introduce a distinction between different classes of believers unknown to the word of God, in which all believers enjoy the same privileges on earth, share the same hope, and are at length rewarded with the same inheritance. Even if we reject such distinctions, we are not entitled to separate between believers and unbelievers, for it cannot be denied that the New Testament always brings the Parousia and the general judgment into the closest possible connection. When Christ comes again, it is to perfect the happiness of all His saints, and to make all His enemies His footstool (Matthew 25:31-46; John 5:28-29; Acts 17:31; Rom 2:16 ; 1 Thessalonians 4:17; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-7; 2 Peter 3:8-13). The teaching of the Apocalypse itself in other passages corresponds with this (chaps. Revelation 3:20-21, Revelation 11:17-18). The idea of masses of the nations continuing to be Christ’s enemies for years or ages after He has come is not only entirely novel, but is at variance with everything we are taught by the other sacred writers upon the point.

The same remark may be made with regard to the two resurrections (in whatever particular form we imagine them to take place) which are separated from each other by a thousand years. We have already seen indeed that the simple exegesis of the passage disproves this idea, and that the ‘first resurrection’ is a state, not an act. But, apart from this, the New Testament knows only of one, and that a general, resurrection (John 5:28-29), and the passages usually quoted as containing partial indications of the opposite, such as 1Co 15:23-24 , 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, to which we shall afterwards advert, fail to support the conclusion drawn from them. The resurrection of believers takes place at ‘the last day’ (John 6:40).

Again, the idea that before the end the Church shall enjoy a long period of prosperity and rest on earth with Christ in her midst, is inconsistent with that teaching of Scripture which seems distinctly to imply that her history down to the close of her pilgrimage shall be one of trouble. That this is the meaning of Matthew 24:0 can hardly be disputed, and the argument from that chapter is the stronger because the discourse of Christ contained in it lies at the bottom of the Apocalypse, and the writer of the latter could not contradict the very authority upon which his delineation is grounded. Or, if it be said that Christ is only to come personally at the end of this time of joy, what can be the meaning of the exhortations addressed to us to wait and long for His Second Coming? We ought rather to wait and long for the millennial bliss.

The second interpretation of which it is necessary to say a few words is that which understands by the thousand years the whole Christian age from the First to the Second Coming of Christ. That there is an element of truth in this view we shall see by and by; but, looking at it in the form in which it is usually presented, it is not possible to accept it. The number one thousand is inappropriate to the purpose to which it is applied. The period in question has already been made known to us as three and a half years. To make it one thousand years now is to throw everything into confusion. Still further, the place of the book in which the vision is found is unsuitable to this view. No doubt the Seer is in the habit of recapitulating. But the thousand years’ reign forms part of a series of visions designed to point out the nature of the Church’s victory after her warfare is concluded. We cannot separate it from the visions of Revelation 19:0, and these certainly belong to the end. Again, the ‘reign’ of one thousand years is obviously granted not to the generation of believers only who are alive at the coming of the Lord, but to all who have been faithful unto death; and none of these have lived through the whole Christian Dispensation. Once more, we cannot speak of Satan as bound and shut up in the abyss during the whole period of the Church’s history. That there is a sense in which he is so as regards the righteous must be allowed, but his action upon the ungodly, upon ‘the nations,’ has never ceased. He has been their betrayer and destroyer in every age. When he was cast out of heaven he was ‘cast down to the earth,’ and there he persecuted the woman ‘for a time, and times, and half a time’ (chap. Revelation 12:9; Revelation 12:14). Our Lord teaches us to pray, ‘Deliver us from the evil one’ (Matthew 6:13). This view, too, equally with the last considered, perplexes our ideas as to what is to happen when the Christian Dispensation has run its course. At this point the thousand years expire; and, as they have been understood of time, it becomes necessary to allow some additional space of time for the closing war. We are thus brought into fresh conflict with other statements of Scripture relating to the same subject. The second proposed solution is not more satisfactory than the first. It was in these circumstances that the writer of this Commentary offered many years ago what seemed to him the true solution of the question of the millennial reign that the thousand years are not a period of time at all. They represent that victory of the Lord over Satan which is shared by His people in Him, and they complete the picture of that glorious condition in which believers have all along really been, but which only now reaches its highest point, and is revealed as well as possessed. The saints ‘died’ when they believed, and entered into a Divine life, but one ‘hid with Christ in God.’ At the manifestation of Christ at His Second Coming they also are ‘manifested with Him in glory’ (Colossians 3:3-4). Such is the leading thought.

That ‘years’ may be taken in this sense there can be no doubt. In Ezekiel 39:9 it is said that the inhabitants of the cities of Israel shall prevail against the enemies described, and ‘shall set on fire and burn the weapons, both the shields and the bucklers, the bows and the arrows, and the hand-staves, and the spears, and they shall burn them with fire seven years i.e, they shall utterly destroy them, not a vestige shall be left Again, at the twelfth verse of the same chapter, when the prophet speaks of the burying of ‘Gog and all his multitude,’ he says, ‘And seven months shall the house of Israel be burying of them, that they may cleanse the land;’ where the expression marks only the thoroughness with which the land should be cleansed from every remnant of heathenish impurity. The use of ‘years’ in the passage before us seems to be exactly similar; and the probability that it is so rises almost to certainty when we remember that, as proved by the vision of Gog and Magog in the subsequent part of the chapter, this prophecy of Ezekiel is before the Seer’s eyes, constituting the foundation upon which his whole delineation rests.

Viewed in this light then, the thousand years, when connected with the binding of Satan, represent the completeness of his overthrow: when connected with the reign of the saints they represent their confirmation in happiness, their establishment in the joy just about to be revealed in fulness, the manifestation of their blessedness to the eyes of all men, when even their enemies shall see that they are safe for ever, and shall follow them with longing eyes as they enter within the gates of the New Jerusalem (comp. chap. Revelation 3:9). They are simply an exalted symbol of the glory of the redeemed at the particular moment referred to by the Seer. Even before this time indeed, and throughout the whole of their struggle with the world, they have enjoyed in principle all that is now bestowed upon them; and herein lies the element of truth belonging to that interpretation which sees in the thousand years the Christian era as it extends from the First to the Second Advent of the Redeemer. During all that period the children of God have not only been sealed, watched over, nourished by their Heavenly Guardians: they have constituted a Resurrection people, living in the power of Christ’s resurrection and of their own resurrection life. They have rested upon a risen and glorified Redeemer, and they have been seated with Him in ‘the heavenly places.’ Their Lord Himself had been always triumphant: at the opening of the first seal He had gone forth ‘conquering and to conquer’ (chap. Revelation 6:2), and in every song of praise, raised by the heavenly hosts the Church and universal nature, which meets us in the book, His had been ‘the blessing, and the honour, and the glory, and the dominion, for ever and ever’ (chap. Revelation 5:13, comp. Revelation 12:12, Revelation 11:15, Revelation 15:3, Revelation 19:7). In this triumph of Christ the saints on earth, as well as the saints in heaven, have their share. For this end was Christ manifested, that from His Incarnation onward ‘He might destroy the works of the devil’ (1 John 3:8). He Himself said when He was on earth, ‘ Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the prince of this world be cast out’ (John 12:31). He declared that ‘the prince of this world hath been judged’ (John 16:11). He gave His disciples reason to hope that they could ‘bind the strong man’ (Matthew 12:29); He said that they had ‘authority’ from Him ‘to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy’ (Luke 10:19); and He allowed them a foretaste and experience of this authority in their healings of those who were possessed with demons. There is an unquestionable sense, therefore, in which for the true children of God from the beginning of the Christian era Satan always has been, and still is, bound. He is beneath their feet. For them as members of the Body of Christ his head is bruised. Still the fact remains, that their state in this book has been described as one of tribulation. The object of the passage before us is to show that there is another side to the picture, and that that side, long hidden, shall be at length revealed. Just as in the earthly life of Jesus there came a time when, His struggle over, His glory shone forth in the presence of His disciples, and He spoke as one already glorified (John 17:0), so there comes a time when His people shall shine forth in the glory which they have received from Him. This is the reign of a thousand years.

It may be said that the words of Revelation 20:7, which speak of the thousand years being ‘finished,’ together with the subsequent outbreak of the devil and the nations against the Church, are inconsistent with the view now taken. The difficulty thus suggested is specious, but by no means insuperable. Let us familiarize ourselves with the idea that the ‘thousand years,’ regarded simply as an expression, may denote completeness, thoroughness, either of defeat or victory. Above all let us place ourselves in the position of the Seer, and catch as far as possible the spirit in which he writes. We shall then have little difficulty in seeing that the loosing of Satan at the end of the thousand years is not to be understood literally. It is a mere incident necessary to give verisimilitude to the poetic delineation. The prophet has described Satan as completely subjugated; but the whole evil of the earth is once more to be presented to us gathered together against the saints. Satan, the head of its kingdom, the prince of this world, must be there that he may direct its energies and share its fate. For this purpose it is needful that he shall be spoken of as loosed. The loosing, then, is not chronological, not historical; it is only poetic, designed to give consistency to the prophet’s vision.

Let us apply this principle to the passage already quoted from Ezekiel 39:9, by supposing that the prophet, immediately after saying, ‘And they shall burn them with fire seven years,’ had desired to mention some other circumstance that then took place, or some other vision that followed the complete destruction of the weapons of war referred to. Would he not have gone on, ‘And when the seven years were finished,’ etc.? Is not such a method of expression involved in the very nature of the previous figure? The figure itself may be a strange one. That is not the question. It is simply whether, having been used, its use does not naturally draw along with it the method of expression subsequently employed.

Besides this, it ought to be remembered that there must be a struggle before the exalted Saviour, with His people as assessors, finally destroys His adversaries. We cannot suppose that these do not resist the fate which they see prepared for them. They shall rouse themselves to a last effort of argument and despair (Matthew 25:24; Matthew 25:44; Isaiah 8:21); but it will be a last despair, the final effort of the serpent to sting when it is in the strong hand of Him whom it is powerless to resist. Finally, it may be said that time is necessary for all this. We reply that it is not time that is thought of but succession, and all Scripture implies that in these events there is succession, although not with a long interval intervening. What 1 Corinthians 15:23-24, and 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, teach is no more than is taught in the delineation of the last judgment contained in Matthew 25:31-46, that the eternal condition of the righteous is determined before that of the wicked. There must be a succession in order to enable us to form any conception of the matter. But no sooner is the one sentence pronounced, ‘Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,’ than the other follows, ‘Depart from Me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels:’ ‘And these shall go away into eternal punishment: but the righteous into eternal life.’

It is true that by the view now taken the Millennium, as it is called, is resolved into a figure of speech. The argument of this note is that St. John intended it to be so, and that the meaning found by us in the passage is that which it was the purpose of the Apostle to convey. It is the true historical interpretation of what he says; and the idea of any millennial reign of Jesus and His saints between the end of this present dispensation and the beginning of eternity ought to be dismissed from our minds.

Before closing this note it may be well to remind the reader that the great Christian creeds present the same striking exclusion of the Millennium which is to be found both in the passage that we have been considering and in all the other Scripture notices of the Lord’s Second Coming. ‘From whence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead’ (Apostles’ Creed);

‘Ascended into heaven; shall come to judge the quick and the dead’ (Nicene Creed); ‘And shall come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end’ (Constantinopolitan Creed); ‘At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies’ (Athanasian Creed).

To the same effect is the language of the Westminster Confession, ‘At the last day, such as are found alone shall not die, but be changed; and all the dead shall be raised up’ (xxxii. 11); while the Larger Catechism is still more definite, ‘Immediately after the resurrection shall follow the general and final judgment of angels and men’ (Qu. 88).

Verse 1

Revelation 20:1. And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key of the abyss and a great chain upon his hand. We have here the second angel after the appearance of the Lord Himself at chap. Revelation 19:11. This angel comes down ‘out of heaven,’ commissioned therefore by God, and clothed with His power. He has the key of the ‘abyss,’ which can be no other than that of chaps. Revelation 9:1-2, Revelation 11:7, and Revelation 17:8. It is the abode of Satan, the home and source of all evil. It has a key, and this key is in the hands of Christ (comp. chap. Revelation 1:18). By Him it is entrusted to the angel for the execution of His purposes. At chap. Revelation 9:2 the angel opened the abyss; here he locks it. In addition to the key the angel has a great chain upon his hand, i.e hanging over his open hand and dropping down on either side. The chain is ‘great’ because of the end to which it is to be applied and its fitness to secure it.

Verses 1-6

It is unnecessary to say anything of the difficulties attending the interpretation of the passage upon which we now enter, or to bespeak the indulgence of the reader. Let it be enough in the meantime to observe that the description of the Victory and Rest of the people of God is continued. The paragraph connects itself closely with chap. 19, and ought not to be separated from it.

Verse 2

Revelation 20:2. And he laid hold on the dragon, the old serpent, which is the Devil and Satan. This dragon we have already met at chaps. Revelation 12:3; Revelation 12:9, Revelation 13:2; Revelation 13:4, Revelation 16:13. He is the first of the three great enemies of the Church, who gives his authority to the beast, and is worshipped by the ungodly. The description corresponds to that at Revelation 12:9, the only difference being that now we read not that he ‘is called’ but that he ‘is’ the devil. Whether this change may be owing to the fact that by this time Satan has been made known in his actual working, whereas then he was only introduced to us, it may be difficult to say; it is of more importance to observe that the last mention of him identifies him with the first.

And bound him a thousand years. The ‘binding’ is more than a mere limitation of Satan’s power. It puts a stop to that special evil working of his which is in the Seer’s eye. The meaning of the thousand years we shall afterwards inquire into.

Verse 3

Revelation 20:3. And east him into the abyss, i.e into the place to which he naturally belongs.

And shut it. The angel closed the door of which he has the key, doubtless at the same time locking it, so that Satan should no longer continue the mischief he had done.

And sealed it over him, not only locking the door, but sealing it in order to make it doubly fast (Daniel 6:17). In each of the acts thus described, the laying hold of Satan, the binding him, the putting him into the abyss, the closing and sealing the abyss, we have a mocking caricature of what was done to Jesus in the last days of His passion (John 18:12; Matthew 27:60; Matthew 27:66).

That he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years should be finished. ‘The’ thousand years, as shown by the use of the article, are the same as in Revelation 20:2, and nothing more therefore need be said of them at present. But who are ‘the nations’? They are mentioned again in Revelation 20:8, as being in the ‘four corners of the earth,’ as being ‘Gog and Magog.’ One distinguished commentator (Bleek) regards them as ‘the heathen nations still remaining on the earth, which are also supposed to remain there during the thousand years’ kingdom, but at its most extreme and minutest points, so that the citizens of the Messianic kingdom do not come in contact with them, nor is their power disturbed by them.’ Another (Alford) has the same general idea, but with this difference, that he considers them to be, during the thousand years, ‘quiet and willing subjects of the kingdom,’ who are again seduced by Satan after he is let loose. A third (Dusterdieck) makes them simply the heathen. A fourth (Kliefoth) draws a distinction between them and those meant by the ‘whole world’ or the ‘whole inhabited world’ (chaps. Revelation 3:10, Revelation 12:9, Revelation 16:14). These latter expressions are referred to the civilized and cultured nations of antiquity, while the more distant and barbarous peoples, living as it were upon the confines of the globe, are comprehended under the former. Over the one ‘the beast’ had exercised his sway, and they alone were destroyed at chap. Revelation 19:17-21. The other, ‘the nations,’ were not involved in that destruction, but were still left upon the earth. The distinction thus drawn between cultured and uncultured peoples seems, however, to be inconsistent with various direct statements of the Apocalypse. Thus at chap. Revelation 3:10 not only is there nothing to suggest the thought of only cultured peoples, but the ‘whole inhabited world’ spoken of must be understood in a sense as wide as that belonging to the words ‘them that dwell upon the earth’ which immediately follow. At chap. Revelation 12:9, where the rule of the dragon is described, it is impossible to limit the expression ‘the whole inhabited world’ in the manner proposed, for chap. Revelation 13:7 gives the beast, the vicegerent of Satan, universal power, and the influence of Babylon, with which that of the beast and therefore of Satan must be coextensive, extends to ‘all the nations,’ including the ‘kings’ and ‘merchants’ of the earth (chaps. Revelation 14:8, Revelation 18:3; Revelation 18:23). Again, the words ‘the nations’ are used in a much wider sense than that of barbarous tribes in Revelation 11:18, where they have their part in history; in chap. Revelation 11:18, where they must refer to the wicked in general in contrast with the good; in chap. Revelation 16:19, where they have ‘cities;’ in chap. Revelation 19:15, where they embrace all the enemies of Christ; and in chap. Revelation 21:24, where they cannot be limited to one section only of the heathen. In short, there does not appear to be a single passage of the Apocalypse in which ‘the whole inhabited world’ means the polished, or ‘the nations’ the unpolished, undeveloped, nations of the globe. The only admissible interpretation, therefore, of the phrase ‘the nations’ is that which understands by it the unchristian godless world.

These nations Satan is to ‘deceive’ no more until the thousand years are finished. The word ‘deceive’ is again used in Revelation 20:8, where we have a further description of that in which the deception consists. In the meantime it is enough to say that the word ‘till’ employed by the Seer takes us forward to the deception practised at the end of the thousand years as that which he has in view. What the dragon will then do he does not do till then. It is thus not a general but a particular deception that is contemplated. We are not necessarily to think of a cessation of Satan’s misleading of the world; but the ‘deceiving’ which he does not practise till the thousand years are finished is definite and special.

After this he must be loosed a little time. The word ‘must’ expresses, as usual, conformity to the purposes of God, who will certainly carry out His own plan.

Verse 4

Revelation 20:4. And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them. A new vision, or rather a further unfolding of that with which we have been occupied, is presented to us. We have first to ask what the ‘thrones’ are. Are they simply places of exalted dignity, or are they seats for judgment? The two ideas might be combined were it not that reigning, not judging, is the prominent idea both of this passage and of Daniel 7:22 upon which the representation in all probability rests. The thrones before us are thrones of kings (chap. Revelation 3:21). Those that ‘sat upon them’ are certainly neither angels nor God; nor are they the twenty-four Elders, for it is the invariable practice of the Seer to name the latter when he has them in view. They can be no other than all the faithful members of Christ’s Church, or at least all of whom it is said in the last clause of the verse that they ‘reigned’ with Christ.

And judgment was given unto them. These words cannot mean that the righteous were beheld seated as assessors with the Christ in judgment, for the word of the original used for judgment denotes the result and not the act of judging; and, so far as appears, there were at this moment none before them to be judged. The use of the word ‘given’ leads to the thought of a judgment affecting themselves rather than others. If so, the most natural meaning will be that the result of judgment was in such a manner given them that they did not need to come into the judgment. As they had victory before they fought (1 John 5:4; see also on Revelation 20:9), so they were acquitted before they were tried.

And I saw the souls of them that had been beheaded for the witness of Jesus and for the word of God, and such as worshipped not the beast, neither his image, and received not his mark upon their forehead and upon their hand. What the Seer beheld was ‘souls,’ and the analogy of chap. Revelation 6:9, a passage in many respects closely parallel to this, makes it clear that they were no more than souls. They had not yet been clothed with their resurrection bodies. The word ‘beheaded’ is very remarkable; nor does it seem a sufficient explanation when it is said that beheading was a Roman punishment. It was certainly not in this way alone that the earliest witnesses of Jesus met at the hands of the Roman power their martyr fate. There must be some other reason for the use of so singular a term. It would seem that the bodies of Jewish criminals were usually cast out into the valley of Hinnom, ‘the beheaded or hanged in one spot, the stoned or burnt in another’ (Geikie’s Life of Christ, ii. 575). May the Seer have in his mind the thought present to him in chap. Revelation 11:8-9, when he spoke of the dead bodies of the two witnesses as lying in the street of the great city and not suffered to be laid in a tomb? These were the ‘beheaded.’ The exposure to which they had been subjected, and the contumely with which they had been treated, are thought of more than the manner of their death. And who were they? Are they no others than those described in the next clause as ‘not worshipping the beast,’ etc., or are they martyrs in the more special sense of the term? The particular relative employed in the original for ‘such as,’ together with the grammatical construction, favours the former idea. In all the clauses of the verse only a single class is spoken of, that of Christ’s faithful ones, and they are described first by their fate and next by their character (comp. chap. Revelation 1:7, and see on chap. Revelation 14:12). If we suppose them to be martyrs in the literal sense we must think of that very small class which suffered by decapitation, excluding the much larger ‘army of martyrs’ who had fallen by other means. Besides which, we introduce a distinction between two classes of Christians that is foreign to the teaching of Christ both in the Apocalypse and elsewhere. God’s people without exception are always with their Lord; the promise that they shall sit upon His throne is to every one that over-cometh (chap. Revelation 3:21); and in Revelation 20:6 nothing more is said of these beheaded sufferers than may be said of all believers. We have already seen that St. John recognises no Christianity that is not attended by suffering and the cross. Every attempt to distinguish between actual martyrs and other true followers of Jesus must in the very nature of the case be vain. How often has there been more true martyrdom in bearing years of pining sickness or meeting wave after wave of sorrow than in encountering sword or axe or fire!

And they lived, and reigned with the Christ a thousand years. The word ‘lived’ must, by every rule of interpretation, be understood in the same sense here as in the following clause, where it is applied to ‘the rest of the dead.’ In the latter connection, however, it cannot express life spiritual and eternal, or be referred to anything else than mere awaking to life after the sleep of death in the grave is over. In this sense we must understand it now. The word might have been translated ‘rose to life’ as in chaps, Revelation 2:8, Revelation 13:14. At this point, therefore, the resurrection of the righteous comes in they ‘lived.’ But they not only lived, they ‘reigned.’ The word denotes only that condition of majesty, honour, and blessedness to which the righteous are exalted. There is no need to think of persons over whom they rule.

Verse 5

Revelation 20:5. The rest of the dead lived not until the thousand years should be finished. If the view taken of Revelation 20:4 be correct, the ‘rest of the dead’ spoken of in Revelation 20:5 can signify none but the ungodly. Believers without exception have been included among those enumerated in the previous verse. There remain only those who have rejected the Lamb, and have given themselves to the service of the beast. Apart from this consideration, we are led by the Apocalypse itself to interpret the word ‘dead’ of the ungodly (comp. on chap. Revelation 11:18). No doubt it is difficult to say why in this case we should read of ‘the rest of the dead’ rather than of ‘the dead.’ May it be that they are viewed as the counterpart of the faithful remnant which we have met in chaps. Revelation 2:24 and Revelation 12:17? At the point now reached by us the resurrection of all men, both good and bad, has taken place.

This is the first resurrection. The word ‘this’ with which the last clause of the verse begins is to be understood as bearing its common acceptation ‘of this nature.’ The writer refers not to the word ‘lived’ alone, where it first occurs in his previous description, but even more particularly to the word ‘reigned;’ or, rather, he refers to the whole account which he has given of the blessedness of the righteous. He is thus, it will be observed, speaking not of an act, but of a state. He is not thinking of any first act of rising in contrast with a second act of the same kind. He is describing the condition of certain persons in comparison with others after an act of rising, predicable of them both, has takin place. Hence the fact, so different from what we should naturally, on first reading the words, expect, that there is no mention of a second resurrection. Nor can it be for a moment pled that the first resurrection implies a second. The Seer chooses his words too carefully to leave room for such an inference. The contrast that he has in view is not between a first and a second resurrection, but between a ‘first resurrection’ and a ‘second death.’ In the first of these two the rising from the dead may be included, but the thought of the condition to which that rising leads is more prominent than the act.

Verse 6

Revelation 20:6. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection. In chap. Revelation 19:9 all believers were pronounced ‘blessed,’ and the word ‘holy’ denotes the consecration that is given not to a few only but to all the saints of God (chaps. Revelation 18:20, Revelation 19:8): besides which, we are immediately told, they ‘shall be priests of God and of the Christ’ The whole description leads directly to the view that all Christians have part in the reign of the thousand years, whatever it may mean.

Over these the second death hath no power. We have spoken of the ‘first resurrection’ as a state, not an act. It is even more clear that the same thing must be said of the ‘second death.’ The Seer has indeed himself distinctly explained it when he says, in Revelation 20:14, ‘This is the second death, even the lake of fire’ (comp. also Revelation 2:11). It is more than the death of the body, more even than the death of the body (could we suppose such a thing) twice repeated. It is the death of the whole man, body and soul together, the ‘eternal punishment’ denounced by our Lord against those who refuse to imitate His example, and to imbibe His spirit (Matthew 25:46). As again bearing on our exposition of Revelation 20:4, it may be well to notice that escaping the ‘second death’ is spoken of in chap. Revelation 2:11 as the privilege not of those alone who are in a special sense martyrs, but of all believers.

But they shall be priests of God and of the Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years. These words again mention privileges (1) that are common to all believers, and (2) that continue not for a thousand years merely, but for ever. All believers are ‘priests’ (chap. Revelation 1:6); all sit upon Christ’s ‘throne’ (chap. Revelation 3:21).

Verse 7

Revelation 20:7. And when the thousand years are finished, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison. The meaning of the first clause of this verse cannot be properly discussed until, in some closing remarks on the chapter, we resume consideration of the whole question of what we are to understand by ‘the thousand years.’ Meanwhile, therefore, it is enough to mark the fact that Satan is represented as loosed out of the prison to which he had been consigned in Revelation 20:3, in order that he may practise that work of ‘deception’ on ‘the nations’ which had been alluded to in Revelation 20:2.

Verses 7-10

The happy pause described from chap. Revelation 19:1 to chap. Revelation 20:6 comes to an end, and we enter upon the sixth leading section of the book. The section extends from chap. Revelation 20:7 to chap. Revelation 22:5, and its object is to show that, though opposed by so many adversaries and led through so many trials, the saints of God shall at the last be victorious. Their great enemy Satan is completely overthrown, and the new Jerusalem descends from heaven to be their abode of perpetual purity and peace and joy. The first paragraph of this section extends from Revelation 20:7 to Revelation 20:10 of the present chapter. It contains a new and final assault upon the saints; but the assault is at once and ignominiously defeated.

Verse 8

Revelation 20:8. And shall come forth to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to the war. ‘Gog and Magog’ are in apposition with ‘the nations,’ so that the two names represent the same thing. There is thus a slight difference between the use of these terms here and in Ezekiel (chaps. 38-39), where Gog is the prince of Magog, and Magog is the nation ruled by him. In the prophecy of Ezekiel the names are applied to a prince and a people coming from a distance, apparently the North (chap. Ezekiel 39:2), fierce, rapacious, and cruel. It is not necessary to inquire what particular people this may be, although they are generally regarded as the nations north of the Caucasus. Enough that, wherever they dwell, they are the enemies of God, that they march against Israel after the latter has been established in its own land, and that they are overthrown with a swift and terrible and final destruction. They thus afford a suitable type for the last enemies of the Church, who have come up against her, and are destroyed. These enemies are described as being ‘in the four corners of the earth.’ The expression meets us in chap. Revelation 7:1, where the four angels, who hold back the winds until the servants of God are sealed, stand upon the four corners of the earth: and, as this is the only other passage where the word occurs in the Apocalypse, we must take it along with us in our effort to ascertain the meaning. Two things may be noticed in connection with it: (1) That the corners of the earth presuppose a centre from which they are distinct; (2) That, though thus distinct from the centre, the powers emanating from them influence the whole earth, and are not confined to the corners, for it is said in chap. Revelation 7:1 that the angels held back not the winds of the corners but the winds ‘of the earth, that no wind should blow on the earth nor on the sea nor on any tree.’ In precise accordance with this, it is stated here that when the nations came up from these four corners they ‘went up over the breadth of the earth;’ they covered it all. It is thus impossible to think of mere remote, barbarous, and unknown tribes in contrast with the civilised nations of the world. Nothing less can be in the writer’s view than all the heathen, including nations the most cultured and the most civilised. Such too is the meaning of the words ‘the nations’ not only in the New Testament generally, but in this particular book. In short, we have before us a fresh illustration of the idea which seems to underlie the whole Apocalypse, that the history of Christ is repeated in the history of the Church. After the pause in John 13-17 there is a fresh and final outbreak of opposition to Jesus, in which the Roman power is peculiarly active. Now, after the pause of the thousand years, there is a fresh outbreak of opposition against the saints, in which the heathen play the prominent part. These ‘nations’ assemble under the leadership of Satan, of whom it is said that he comes forth out of his prison ‘to deceive the nations, to gather them together to the war.’ The deception is not the general deception practised by Satan over the hearts of men, and continued during the whole period of human history. It is one act of deception committed at the last, and consisting of the particular influence referred to.

The number of whom is as the sand of the sea. The common biblical expression for innumerable hosts.

Verse 9

Revelation 20:9. And they went up over the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about and the beloved city. The two appellations here used are evidently intended to express only two different aspects of the same thing, although we are probably to think of the camp not as within the city, but as round about it and defending it (comp. Psalms 34:7). ‘The beloved city’ can be no other than Jerusalem, and this is allowed by all commentators. But it is neither the new Jerusalem, which has not yet come down from heaven, nor the actual city of that name, which is supposed by many to play ‘so glorious a part’ in the latter days. It is in the nature of things impossible that such enormous hosts should encompass one small city. The whole, too, is a vision, and must be symbolically understood. As ‘the nations’ denote the enemies, ‘the beloved city’ denotes the people, of God; and surely not a select number, but all the ‘saints;’ all to whom the term ‘Jerusalem’ in its best sense may be properly applied. It was in a similar sense that in chap. Revelation 14:1 the 144,000 stood upon Mount Zion, and that in chap. Revelation 14:20 the slaughter took place ‘without the city.’

And fire came down out of heaven and devoured them. The destruction is complete even without mention of a battle being fought (comp. 1 John 5:4). The imagery is taken from Ezekiel 38:22; Ezekiel 39:6, with allusion also to such a destruction as that of 2Ki 1:10 ; 2 Kings 1:12; 2 Kings 1:14.

Verse 10

Revelation 20:10. And the devil that deceiveth them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where are also the beast and the false prophet; and they shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever. The last great enemy of the Church is now overcome and destroyed as the beast and the false prophet have already been (chap. Revelation 19:20). He is cast into the lake of fire, where all three are tormented for ever and ever. It is presupposed in this everlasting torment that they have made their final and unchangeable choice of evil. This is indicated in the words ‘that deceiveth,’ the present tense leading us to the thought of the essential character, not the present action, of the great enemy of man.

Verse 11

Revelation 20:11. And I saw a great white throne and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. The throne that is seen is ‘great,’ not so much in contrast with the thrones of Revelation 20:4, as in correspondence with the Great Being who sits upon it. It is also ‘white,’ emblematic of His perfect purity and righteousness. He that sits upon it is Christ, not God, although we may remember that Christ is the revelation of God, and the Doer of the Father’s will. From before His face the earth and the heavens flee away, 1e, they are completely removed, time aid earth and all that belongs to them coming to an end. Similar descriptions, although not so complete, have already met us at chaps. Revelation 6:14 and Revelation 16:20.

Verses 11-15

The vision before us contains an account of the last judgment, and it will be well to examine it before endeavouring to determine more particularly the meaning of the thousand years spoken of in the first vision of this chapter.

Verse 12

Revelation 20:12. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Is this a general judgment? Such is the view generally, though not always, taken. All the dead, not only the wicked, but (as some think) certain classes of the righteous who had had no part in the ‘first resurrection,’ or (as others think) the righteous without exception, are supposed to be included. It is thought that the literal reign of a thousand years had preceded the final determination of the state of any whether good or bad; that this reign is over; and that all, whether they have had a share in its blessedness or not, must now take their stand before the judgment-seat of God, that they may be judged by what they have done. But St. John speaks of ‘the dead,’ and we have already seen that that word is used by him of the wicked only (comp. on Revelation 20:5 and on chap. Revelation 11:18). Such seems to be his meaning here; and that it is so will be abundantly confirmed as we proceed. Nor is the amplification of the term ‘the dead’ by means of ‘the great and the small’ at variance with the idea that the class so described is limited. Similar, at times even greater, amplifications occur elsewhere in connection with classes which the context undeniably confines to one class whether of the wicked or the good (chaps. Revelation 11:18, Revelation 13:16, Revelation 19:5; Revelation 19:18). The ‘dead,’ therefore, are here the wicked alone; and the ‘books’ contain a record of no deeds but theirs. The ‘books’ are indeed expressly distinguished from ‘the book of life.’

And another book was opened which is the book of life, and the dead were judged out of the things which were written in the books according to their works. The words ‘another book’ show that this book is quite distinct from the ‘books’ before mentioned, and that ‘the books’ now spoken of are the ‘books’ of the previous clause. It is indeed possible to conceive that the deeds of the righteous as well as of the wicked (names of persons being necessarily associated with them) may be contained in the ‘books,’ while the ‘book of life’ may at the same time contain a second list of the righteous alone. But this notion of two lists of the righteous seems in a high degree improbable, and the natural conclusion from the words before us is that what are spoken of as the ‘books,’ in distinct contrast with ‘the book of life,’ contain nothing but the names of the wicked and their works. The latter, too, are obviously the only books out of which judgment is pronounced. There is not the slightest indication that the ‘book of life’ was opened for judgment. The only purpose for which it is used is that mentioned in Revelation 20:15. It will be observed, moreover, that no ‘works’ are referred to except those of the wicked. So far, therefore, from being led by a ‘vicious literalism’ to confine the judgment before us to the wicked, such an interpretation appears, at least as far as we have come, to be demanded by a plain and natural exegesis of the text.

Verse 13

Revelation 20:13. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them, and they were judged each one according to their works. By the ‘sea’ it is impossible to understand the ocean. The word meets us many times in the Apocalypse; but, when it is used absolutely as here, without anything to suggest a contrast to the land, it is evidently figuratively used, as the emblem of the troubled and evil world (see Revelation 13:1, Revelation 21:1). On this ground, and because associated with death and Hades, it must be regarded not as the ocean, in which many of the saints have perished, but as one of the sources whence the wicked come to judgment. Of the sense again in which ‘death’ and ‘Hades’ are to be understood we have the best illustration in chap. Revelation 6:8, where the former rides upon the pale horse and is followed by the latter. In that passage both ‘death’ and ‘Hades’ are the enemies of men; both are one of the judgments that come upon the world, so that they are not neutral powers, but powers exercising sway over the wicked, and having only the wicked under their control. This is absolutely established by the fact stated in the next verse, that both are cast into the lake of fire, not simply brought to an end, but punished with the same punishment which had already been meted out to the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet.

Verse 14

Revelation 20:14. And death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death, even the lake of fire. The first part of this verse has been spoken of. The second part explains that the second death is ‘the lake of fire,’ clearly showing that the second death is a state. It is the state of those who have chosen and confirmed to themselves the death which came upon man by sin, from which Christ redeems, but which becomes to those who wilfully reject His redemption a still more fearful, even the second, death.

Verse 15

Revelation 20:15. And if any one was not found written in the book of life, he was cast into the lake of fire. Here then is the purpose, and the only one, for which ‘the book of life’ is spoken of as used at the judgment before us. It was searched in order that it might be seen if any one’s name was not written in it; and he whose name could not be discovered in its pages was cast into the lake of fire. For a carefulness of expression very similar to that of these words see John 10:16 and note.

From all that has been said it will be apparent that the judgment now described is not a general judgment, but one on the wicked only. The first view is no doubt that which most naturally suggests itself to the reader of the passage, until he examines more particularly the expressions that are employed, and calls to mind the whole style of thought exhibited in this book. But (1) The thought of a general judgment breaks the continuity of the scene. The passage, as a whole, is occupied with judgment upon the enemies of the Church. The interposition of a judgment, and consequent reward, of the righteous disturbs the even now of the description: (2) It is very difficult to imagine that those who have already reigned with Christ in the thousand years, and to whom judgment either relating to themselves or over others has been ‘given’ (Revelation 20:4), should now be placed at the judgment bar: (3) Add to all this the use and meaning in St. John’s writings of such words as ‘the dead,’ ‘judged,’ ‘the sea,’ ‘death,’ and ‘Hades,’ and it appears impossible to adopt any other conclusion than that in the vision now before us we have a judgment of the wicked, and not a general judgment.

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Bibliographical Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Revelation 20". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/scn/revelation-20.html. 1879-90.